Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists

Ellet Joseph WaggonerEllet Joseph Waggoner:
The Myth and the Man

David P. McMahon

The Early Waggoner: 1884

In 1884 the Advent movement was still an infant church with less than 30,000 members. The basic beliefs of Adventism, however, had been established. And Adventists had begun emphasizing their distinctive "truths"—such as Sabbath keeping, the state of the dead and the investigative judgment—in a way that subordinated the eternal verities of "the common faith." In fact, many early Adventists were Arian in their Christology, and they were not fully settled on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. (1) In theological matters the pioneers were obviously immature. They majored on prophecy and eschatology. Above all, they emphasized the keeping of the law.

Such recognized authors as Norval F. Pease, (2) Arthur W. Spalding, (3) A. V. Olson (4) and LeRoy E. Froom, (5) together with other prominent Adventist writers, have adequately recorded the church's arid legalism in the pre-1888 period. Norval Pease notes that "the masthead of the Review from August 15 to December 19, 1854, listed the 'Leading Doctrines Taught by the Review.' This list included absolutely no mention of justification, righteousness, or any related topic." (6) Looking back on the period, Mrs. White herself said that the "doctrine of justification by faith [had] been lost sight of" (7) and the churches were "dying for the want of teaching on the subject of righteousness by faith in Christ, and on kindred truths." (8)

When we say the Adventist community placed great stress on the law of God, we mean "the third use of the law." In theology this is the law as a rule of life for Christians. And there is nothing wrong with this emphasis. It is true to the Bible and the Protestant heritage and is in harmony with all the great Confessions of the Reformation churches.

The early Adventists also taught that perfect keeping of the Ten Commandment law is the condition of eternal life. Uninformed Campbellites may have debated this with the Adventists. Other adherents of a degenerate Protestantism may have denied this too. But the great Reformers of the sixteenth century, like Luther, Calvin and Chemnitz, recognized that God requires a perfect righteousness for salvation. The best Protestant teachers of the nineteenth century, like Thomas Chalmers, James Buchanan, Charles Hodge and Charles Spurgeon, also believed that perfect obedience to the law of God is the condition of eternal life. (9)

But there was a difference between early Adventist preaching and good Protestant preaching. Adventists generally taught that the Lord forgives past sins and then helps the believer keep the law as a condition of eternal life. On the other hand, the apostles, Reformers and sound Protestant scholars taught that under the covenant of grace Christ kept the law for us and thereby fulfilled the conditions upon which God gives eternal life to believers. Believing sinners, justified by Christ's imputed righteousness, will keep the law. But they will never keep it in this life to the satisfaction of divine justice. Their good works testify to their genuine faith in Jesus Christ. But this obedience to the law is not the basis on which God grants eternal life.

In general, the pre-1888 Adventist community thought differently. Of course, they would have acknowledged salvation by grace. But "saving grace" was understood as "assisting grace." It was to help the struggling believer keep the law well enough to stand in the judgment and be granted eternal life at last. No wonder poor souls in the church groaned under the burden of trying to fulfill the conditions necessary for salvation! No wonder this fearful quaking at the foot of Sinai prepared them for a more excellent way! E. J. Waggoner was one of God's trail blazers in that era.

In 1884 Waggoner was an assistant editor of the Signs of the Times under his father, J. H. Waggoner. That year young Waggoner wrote ten significant articles on the law and the gospel. Considering his denominational background, we should not be disappointed that his early articles were somewhat immature and faulty.

Before beginning his own series, Waggoner reprinted an article by Rev. Philip S. Moxom from the Presbyterian periodical, the New York Independent. It was entitled "Christ 'the End of the Law.'" (10) Moxom showed that the "end of the law" (Rom. 10:4) does not mean the abrogation of the law but its perfect realization and fulfillment in Christ. Christ was the embodiment of the righteousness of the law.

Understandably, such comments would be well received by Seventh-day Adventists. But Moxom did not correctly state the way of salvation. He did not say believers are saved unto life eternal because the Mediator satisfied the claims of the law on their behalf. Nor did he say this perfect righteousness becomes theirs by God's gracious imputation. In fact, the writer seemed to deny the gospel of salvation by substitution, representation and imputation. Moxom concluded his article by asserting that men are saved by the infusion of righteousness into them. He said:

    Righteousness is not to be found in scrupulous, ascetic practices—a kind of moral gymnastics—but in Christlikeness. As that condition is progressively attained, the law passes into fulfillment within us. He who loves Christ loves righteousness, and so is transformed in his deepest impulses. He is assimilated to the character of him whom he loves.

    Christ is, then, the end of the law for righteousness; not the abrogation of the law, but its re-enactment in the sphere of the individual soul. . .

    If he is ever to be saved—that is, if he is ever to be righteous—the law must pass within him, and become a free, internal impulse. Obedience must rise in the spontaneous choices of his heart.

    How can this be accomplished? Not by any compulsion, not by any fiction of imputed righteousness, not by any hard will-work and ascetic discipline, but by FAITH, by the acquaintance of the soul with God in Christ, by the sinner's coming into love with Christ through the revelation of Christ's grace and beauty, and by the ministry of that Spirit whom Christ unceasingly bestows. (11)
No one who is sound in the doctrine of grace will deny the need for the infusion of righteousness by the Holy Spirit. But this is for sanctification—the fruit of salvation. Believers are not saved by inward sanctification. Salvation by sanctification is only a refined doctrine of salvation by lawkeeping. Believers are saved to a life of sanctification, to the keeping of the law.

Moxom's aversion to the Pauline and true Protestant doctrine of salvation to life eternal by Christ's imputed righteousness may be significant. Waggoner showed evidence of a long struggle over the concept of imputed- forensic-righteousness until finally he rejected it altogether. One wonders whether Moxom sowed the first seeds of error in Waggoner's mind. Despite his defense of the binding claims of law, Moxom's article was contrary to the gospel.

In his first major work, published on June 19, 1884, Waggoner raised the question, "What are the conditions of eternal life?" (12) On the basis of our Lord's answer to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-22), he argued that the condition of eternal life is perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments—perfect righteousness. In this, young Waggoner was sound.

The next week Waggoner wrote on the "Nature of the Law." This was an excellent statement on the greatness of God's law. The law is an expression of God's righteousness, a transcript of His character. "The better acquainted we become with God's law, the greater it appears to us.... It is so broad that it covers every act that any rational creature can perform, and every thought that the mind of man can conceive." (13)

On July 3 Waggoner discussed the subject, "Condemned and Justified." After showing that the perfect law of God condemns all men, he stated the way of justification.

    Christ was sinless; the law was in his heart. As the Son of God his life was worth more than those of all created beings, whether in Heaven or on earth. He saw the hopeless condition of the world, and came "to seek and to save that which was lost." Luke 19:10. To do this he took upon himself our nature. Heb. 2:16, 17; and on him was laid "the iniquity of us all." Isa. 53:6. In order to save us, he had to come where we were, or, in other words, he had to take the position of a lost sinner. Thus the apostle says: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin." 2 Cor. 5:2 1. It was this fact that caused him such anguish in the garden. He felt that the sins upon him were shutting him away from God. It was this that caused him, when hanging on the cross, to utter that cry of bitter agony, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It was not physical pain that crushed the life out of the Saviour of the world, but the load of sin which he bore. "The wages of sin is death." Rom. 6:23. Sin will cause the death of every one who is not freed from it, for "sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death." James 1:15. And because Christ was "numbered with the transgressors," he suffered the penalty of transgression.

    But the suffering of Christ was not on his own account. "He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth." 1 Peter 2:22. He was one who could safely appeal to the law to justify him, for he had never violated it. The law had nothing against him. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities." Isa. 53:5. He alone has done more than his duty—more than was required of him; consequently he has merit to impart to others. This grace is freely given to all who believe in him. Thus: Our past life has been nothing but sin, for whatever good we may have thought to do, it was far from perfect.
    But we believe implicitly in Christ, and have faith in the efficacy of his sacrifice; and because of this simple faith, Christ will take our load of sins upon himself, and we will be accounted as though we had never committed them. He can take them without fear of any evil consequences to himself, because he has already suffered the extreme penalty of the law for them. And since our sins are taken from us, we are as though we had never broken the law, and therefore it can have nothing against us—it cannot condemn us. So we stand before the court justified. Justified by what? By our works? No; justified by faith in Christ. Our works condemned us; Christ has justified us. And so Paul's conclusion is true, that "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." Rom. 3:28. (14)
This is the true biblical and Protestant doctrine of justification through the blood or penal sufferings— atonement—of Christ. Nevertheless, neither in this article nor in subsequent articles in 1884 did Waggoner have a doctrine of justification by the imputation of Christ's life of perfect obedience to the law. His doctrine of justification was therefore vitiated and fell short of a full justification to life eternal.

Since keeping the law is a condition of eternal life, or "full salvation" as Waggoner called it, on July 17 he showed how a justified believer will keep the law. (15) He cannot do it in his own strength. But God's grace will enable him to do it. Unfortunately, Waggoner had no concept of imputed righteousness. Justification for him was only forgiveness for past sins. With God's helping grace the believer must go on to fulfill the conditions upon which eternal life is finally granted.

With Waggoner, justification was not a full justification unto life eternal. It was the nonimputation of sin on the ground of Christ's passive obedience (death). To Waggoner, justification did not include imputation of righteousness on the ground of Christ's active obedience (life). Of course, if Christ did not fulfill the conditions upon which God grants eternal life, the believer must fulfill them. But while Waggoner's doctrine of justification was inadequate, he was nevertheless struggling with a great theme and making progress.

In his July 24 article on "Christ the End of the Law," Waggoner repeated the Wesleyan idea that justification is only for the sins of the past and that a justified believer will keep the law by the assisting grace of God. (16)

On August 7 Waggoner discussed Romans 7. (17) He first dealt with "the second use of the law"—exposing sin and driving the sinner to Christ. This emphasis had been sadly lacking in most Adventist teaching. In his masterful Commentary on Galatians, Luther, of course, had hammered on the second use of the law and thus prepared for the powerful preaching of justification by faith.

Later in this same article Waggoner considered the man of Romans 7:14-25. He took the view that this man is an unconverted though convicted sinner. With God's help, he argued, "the law in its perfectness" can be"accomplished by us" because "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." This superficial perfectionism was prevalent in Waggoner's time. And it has strong adherents in the Adventist community today.

On August 28 Waggoner discussed the meaning of "under the law" (Rom. 6:14). (18) His articles continued under the same title for the remainder of the year. He argued that Paul's expression "under the law" simply means under condemnation of the law. Waggoner was obviously trying to champion the binding claims of the law. He gave no evidence that he ever broadened his view on the meaning of "under the law."

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and scholars like Dr. Edward Heppenstall have shown that "under condemnation" does not adequately cover all that Paul means by "under law." (19) In Paul's expression to the Galatians, "Tell me, you that desire to be under the law," it does not make sense to substitute "Tell me, you that desire to be under condemnation." The Judaizers did not practice circumcision because they wanted to be condemned. They did it to be justified.

"Under law" sometimes means using the law as a method of salvation. This is legalism. As long as men think they must fulfill the law as a condition of eternal life, they are under the law. While it is true that a believer keeps the law, he does not keep it to fulfill the terms of God's covenant. That is the work of the Mediator. Apparently Waggoner did not grasp this aspect of justifying grace.

On September 11 Waggoner presented a summary. It reveals that he saw justification as a forensic act of God which deals with the sins of the past.

    5. "Condemnation" is "the judicial act of declaring guilty and dooming to punishment."—Webster. It is the direct opposite of "justification," which is "a showing to be just or conformable to law, rectitude, or propriety." Therefore since the law of God declares the whole world to be guilty before God, and will not justify a single individual, it follows that all the world are under the condemnation of the law of God....

    7. Since all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, we are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Rom. 3:24. We are justified by faith alone, "without the deeds of the law." Rom. 3:28; for no amount of good deeds will atone for one sin. If a man had stolen a horse, abstaining from horse-stealing to all eternity would not in the least clear him from the guilt. If we are freed from past transgressions, it must be solely by an act of favor on the part of God.

    8. This justification belongs only to those who believe in Jesus. Rom. 3:26. It is purely a matter of faith on the part of the sinner, and of favor on the part of God. Rom. 3:2 1, 22, 28. And therefore to obtain justification from past transgressions, the sinner has only to have sincere faith in Christ. It takes just as long to be justified as it does to have faith in Christ, and no longer. (20)
Waggoner then answered those who used Galatians 3:24, 25 as an argument against lawkeeping. Departing from the accepted Adventist position that the law in Galatians 3 is simply the Jewish ritual law, he accepted the position of Adventist opponents that the law in Galatians 3, as in Romans 3 and 7, is especially the moral law. Waggoner met these opponents on their own ground and contended that the Ten Commandments are binding on all Christians.

These articles on the law in Galatians must have pleased E. J. Waggoner's father, Joseph H. Waggoner. Years before, Uriah Smith and James and Ellen White had opposed J. H. Waggoner's teaching that the law in Galatians was the moral law. But although silenced, he had never relinquished his position. (21) Now, in 1884, his son took up his cause on the law in Galatians with some advancement on his father's arguments. This gave Uriah Smith, the editor of the Review and Herald, and George Butler, the President of the General Conference, great distress. The controversy was to flare again in 1886. In his concluding article on the law in Galatians, E. J. Waggoner showed that redemption is based on the historic atonement of Jesus Christ.

    "Wherefore," the apostle continues, "in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." Heb. 2:17. He was made "in all things" like those whom he came to redeem.

    Some one may exclaim, "What! do you think that Christ was a sinner?" By no means, he was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15); he was absolutely good, the embodiment of goodness, yet he was counted as a sinner. In no other way could he be made "in all things" like his brethren, for they were sinners. In proof of this we quote 2 Cor. 5:2 1: "For he (God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." As a parallel to this, read Isa. 53:6: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him (Christ] the iniquity of us all." He bore the sins of the world as though they were his own. If it were not so, he would not have died; for "the wages of sin is death." None can die except those in whom sin is found; our sins were laid on Christ, and accounted as his; and so, although personally "he knew no sin," he was made to suffer the penalty of the law as a transgressor. And herein is the unspeakable love of Christ, that the innocent should assume the crimes of the guilty, and die in his stead. It was because Christ had taken upon himself "the form of a servant," that he became obedient unto death. Some have thought it nothing less than blasphemy to speak of Christ, the sinless one, as being made a sinner, and suffering the penalty for sin, but it is from this very thing that he derives his highest glory. We simply state the fact as we find it in the Bible. This is the unfathomable mystery which angels desire to look into, and which will to all eternity call forth the love and adoration of the redeemed hosts.

    We think a careful reading of the above, together with many Scripture texts for which we have not space, will convince all that to say that one is "under the law" is equivalent to saying that he is subject to its penalty as a sinner. Gal. 4:1-5, then, teaches the simple fact that in order to save those who, on account of having violated the law, were under the condemnation of death, Christ put himself in their place and suffered the penalty of the law....

    Death is the curse which the law pronounces upon every transgressor; but from this Christ has delivered us (if we believe on him), by voluntarily becoming our substitute. (22)

This is not the mystical atonement that Waggoner later developed to the detriment of his entire theological thinking. Here he does not hesitate to describe the atonement in forensic categories. Christ was "counted" a sinner and suffered the judicial penalty of the law. Oh that Waggoner had always clung to the simple view of redemption by the substitutionary dying of Christ in history! The early and the late Waggoner clearly demonstrate that the simple, direct understanding of Bible truth is generally correct. Error, on the other hand, winds in a devious, mystical path like a crooked serpent.

On another point, Waggoner's explanation of 2 Corinthians 5:21—Christ was made sin for us—is undoubtedly correct and contrasts with his later teaching. This was not an ''effective making'' but a ''judicial making." Although Christ was sinless, He was counted a sinner. The sins of men were imputed to Him. But subsequent controversy with Butler on the law in Galatians led Waggoner to argue that Christ was made sin by actually taking a human nature as sinful as the rest of mankind. In later years this became a prominent feature of his departure from all the forensic categories of biblical thought.

What advancement did the early Waggoner make over the Adventism of his time? Except for Waggoner's view on the law in Galatians, both Uriah Smith and George Butler made virtually identical statements on Christ's substitutionary death, justification for past sins and enabling power for future obedience. Apparently both Smith and Butler were also aware that the moral law has a "second use" as well as a "third use." Did Waggoner then make any advance at all?

In our judgment he did. A message must be assessed by its emphasis as well as by its individual points of doctrine. The spirit in which a musical composition is performed is often more important than correct technical execution. With Waggoner, justification became a great preoccupation, a burning passion. He saw the greatness and grandeur of the law, which exposed the pretensions of all men and convinced all of their sinnerhood. This was just what Laodiceans needed—Laodiceans who boasted in their lawkeeping, confident that their lives could stand before the judgment of God.


1. See esp. LeRoy E. Froom, Movement of Destiny, pp. 148-87. Cf. Erwin R. Gane, "The Arian or Anti-Trinitarian views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G. White Answer."
2. Norval F. Pease, "Justification and Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church before 1900."
3. Arthur W. Spalding, Captains of the Host.
4. A. v. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory: 1888-1901.
5. Froom, Movement of Destiny.
6. Pease, "Justification and Righteousness by Faith," p. 31.
7. Ellen G. White, "Camp-meeting at Williamsport, Pa.," Review and Herald, 13 Aug. 1889, p. 514. Cf. Mrs. White's comment regarding the situation in the time of John Wesley: "The great doctrine of justification by faith, so clearly taught by Luther, had been almost wholly lost sight of; and the Romish principle of trusting to good works for salvation, had taken its place" (Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 253).
8. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 301.
9. In the previous century John Wesley had unfortunately defected from this orthodox Protestant position. Like the Neo-Nomians and most Arminians, he said that Christ brought in easier (evangelical) conditions such as repentance and faith.
10. Philip S. Moxom, "Christ 'the End of the Law,"' Signs of the Times, 5 June 1884, pp. 338-39.
11. Ibid.
12. E. J. Waggoner, "An Important Question," Signs of the Times, 19 June 1884, pp. 377-78.
13. E. J. Waggoner, "Nature of the Law," Signs of the Times, 26 June 1884, p. 392.
14. E. J. Waggoner, "Condemned and Justified," Signs of the Times, 3 July1884, pp. 408-9.
15. E. J. Waggoner, "A New Creature in Christ," Signs of the Times, 17 July 1884, pp. 424-25.
16. E. J. Waggoner, "Christ the End of the Law," Signs of the Times, 24 July 1884, p. 442.
17. E. J. Waggoner, "Christ the End of the Law" (concl.), Signs of the Times, 7 Aug. 1884, pp. 473-74.
18. E. J. Waggoner, "Under the Law," Signs of the Times, 28 Aug. 1884, p. 520.
19. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:541-42, 960.
20. E. J. Waggoner, "Under the Law" (cont.), Signs of the Times, 11 Sept. 1884, pp. 553-54.
21. Smith to Ellen G. White, 17 Feb. 1890. Cf. Smith to W. A. McCutchen, 8 Aug. 1901.
22. E. J. Waggoner, "Under the Law" (concl.), Signs of the Times, 18 Sept.1884, pp. 569-70.

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